The talk is always of respecting all teams, of no easy games and how everybody at this level is equal. That may be true for coaches and players but it certainly isn’t for fans and, after two awkward draws against teams from eastern Europe, Newcastle United has been rewarded with a glamorous Europa League quarterfinal against Benfica.
This may not be the Benfica of Mario Coluna and Eusebio, or even of Jonas Thern and Mats Magnusson, but it is a name that resonates with history and – perhaps even more significantly – Lisbon is easily accessible by a cheap flight from Tyneside. Thousands of Newcastle fans are likely to make the trip to Portugal.
There they will find their club’s toughest challenge so far. Benfica stand top of the Portuguese league, unbeaten and having dropped just eight points out of a possible 66 so far. Although it went out of the Champions League at the group stage, it essentially paid for a defeat away to Spartak Moscow; it took four points of Celtic, who did qualify, and managed a draw away to Barcelona. It has won each of its four games so far in the Europa League knockout, dismissing Bayer Leverkusen 3-1 on aggregate and Bordeaux 4-2.
Benfica has been extremely tactically flexible this season. Oscar Cardozo represents the main attacking threat and his battle with Steven Taylor ought to be fascinating, while Ola John and Nicolas Gaitan offer a threat from wide. Newcastle has been exceptional defensively in beating Metalist Kharkiv and Anzhi Makhachkala in the past two rounds but that will be a severe test for whichever fullbacks survive the seemingly perpetual injury crisis Newcastle has in the position.
It’s hard to believe the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew will change his approach given how successful he has been, although he admitted may shave off the “lucky beard” he grew before the game in Moscow under pressure from his daughter. Certainly in the away leg, the midfield will sit deep, look to restrict Benfica using the strength and pace of Papiss Cisse as an outlet.
Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, faces a return to Russia after his side drew Rubin Kazan, Russian champions in 2008 and 2009 (whether in Kazan or Moscow has yet to be confirmed). Although it is backed by the Tartarstan government, it does not have the vast resources of Zenit St. Petersburg or Anzhi, its strength lying largely in its coach, Kurban Berdyev, and his ability to spot a bargain and reinvigorate the careers of ageing players. “He’s not really a motivator; he’s more a dictator,” said the South African midfielder MacBeth Sibaya, who spent seven years at the club. “You have to do what he’s telling you, otherwise you’re sitting on the bench. He’s very strict – the players who go out, the players who drink a lot…. He monitors everything.”
On the bench, Berdyev tends to sit all but motionless – in a tracksuit for home games, a shirt buttoned to the neck away, often topped with a maroon V-necked jumper for away – the hair that remains to the sides of his balding head always neatly clipped. And in his hand are his famed prayer-beads which he fidgets with through games – usually the only sign of any emotion he betrays. “I just feel that I have to keep them in my hands when I’m watching a game,” Berdyev explained. “I don’t feel well without them. There were a couple of times when I accidentally forgot to take them to matches and I felt uncomfortable as though I were missing something.”
Rubin has fallen away since the championship years, finishing sixth last year and climbing to sixth this season with a 1-0 win over Zenit last Sunday. The front running of the 23-year-old Venezuelan Jose Rondon, signed from Malaga in the summer, represents Rubin’s main threat, with Roman Eremenko pulling strings behind him. As Atletico Madrid, the defending champions, found in losing to the Russians in the last 32, though, the bigger problem is less its attacking threat than its defensive qualities, personified by the holding midfielder duo of the Israeli Bibras Natkho and the Spaniard Pablo Orbaiz.
The third English side, Tottenham Hotspur, face Swiss opposition in FC Basel, who, having gone 1-0 down, showed great resolve on Thursday to hold out with ten-men throughout the second half against Zenit St Petersburg and protect the 2-0 lead it achieved in the final ten minutes of the first leg. After an indifferent start to the season, Basel has picked up since the winter break with the forward Marco Streller and midfielder Valentin Stocker in fine form, closing to within two points of Grasshoppers at the top of the Swiss league; defeat to Zenit was its first since November.
The only tie not to feature a English side sees Fenerbahce, conquerors of BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen, take on Lazio, who beat Stuttgart 3-1 on Thursday to complete a 5-1 aggregate win and end German involvement in the competition.